Fire and Ice:

The Relationship Between Humans and the Environment

Lindsay Devon Brin

Nearly everything that a human does is in response to the environment. Our lives are defined by what is around us and what we find in front of us, whether this means accepting, dealing with or changing it. This has been the pattern since primates first stood up and became Homo erectus, and has continued until we considered ourselves doubly wise. The shape of the land affected where humans moved. Weather was something with which to contend. Fire affected humans until they conquered it – and herein lies the core of the relationship. The earth affects humans, and humans affect it back, viewing characteristics and patterns as problems and challenges, and finding a solution.

This is why it matters: we don’t know where we should go unless we know who and where we are. We don’t know either unless we know where we’ve been. We need to know where to go.

The earth and its inhabitants make up a system, and a change to a part of it affects the rest. What we do at one point in time will affect what we have later. As such, it’s important to look at the way that humans have affected the environment in our history (and before), and to try to figure out the results of such changes. (It’s necessary to keep in mind that not all impact by humans has been negative impact.) Some of the ways humans have changed the environment have been with fire, agriculture and hunting, and for the purpose of making energy useful.

“Permanent occupation” of humans in Europe did not occur until 80,000 years ago, when the continent was no longer covered in an ice sheet (Ponting). Even then, however, the climate was harsh and though it supported life, it was not an easy life. To survive this environment, humans would have needed fire for warmth. Scientists disagree on when humans first tamed fire, as it’s difficult to prove firstly that a piece of evidence is really from fire, and secondly, that this fire was set intentionally by humans (Science). The most accepted time for the first use of fire is approximately 200,000 years ago (Science). However, researchers from the University Rennes in Paris have found evidence of an “ancient fireplace” from approximately 465 years ago. If this is confirmed, this would be an incredible find (Science).

What is known is that humans used fire for a variety of purposes, such as agriculture and hunting. Humans learned that if a forest was cleared of undergrowth, it was easier to hunt for animals in the forest. In the Australia of 50,000 years ago, there were large animals – termed the megafauna – that the indigenous people hunted for food. Soon after humans arrived on the continent, however, the megafauna disappeared. There are several possible reasons for the extinction. One particularly dramatic one is that humans’ extreme use of fire, perhaps uncontrolled, caused the climate to become more arid, and making it impossible for some megafauna to survive. Possibly, the plants that were their sustenance were destroyed. Some animals – such as a large, emu-like bird – were hunted to extinction. (NPR) The climate of most of Australia is still arid.

When undergrowth in a forest was burned away, certain plants were more likely to grow back than others, and so humans could cause things such as edible bracken to grow in abundance, providing them with a reliable source of food (Ponting). It may have been this sort of realization that lead to agriculture. Humans did not necessarily know that the consequence of such an action would lead a major change in human life and society. For example, humans may have noticed that when a nut was planted – perhaps something accidentally left behind – a tree grew in its place. Nomadic hunter-gatherers tended to frequent the same camps season after season, and they could have noticed changes: the new tree, evidence that a lightning fire led to growth of bracken. If they decided to effect these changes themselves, there would be a primitive field to come back to each year. At some point, these groups may have decided to stay where they were, and work the earth instead of gathering. This could have continued as a primitive form of agriculture, and lead to the more advanced methods, and the ability to support a larger population. (The probable maximum population a hunting-gathering lifestyle could support was reached about 10,000 years ago.)

In any case, it is likely that a changing climate made the land more fertile and increased the ease with which humans could produce their food (Ponting). And with agriculture came societies, with a leisure class that depended on the work of the growers and farmers (Ponting). With that came specialization, and the ability to craft products that otherwise could not have been made.

Most of human impact on the environment may come from our search for energy. For years, humans have used water and wind for mechanical energy in processes such as grinding grain. This was a relatively efficient, waste free way of solving the problem, but lead to a problem of scale: there is only so much space on a fast-flowing river (Ponting). When humans needed more and easier ways of producing usable energy, resources such as wood were used. After wood came coal, and eventually petroleum, (Ponting) and now we have an easy way of creating a lot of energy. With this came waste and inefficiency, but in terms of amount of product, the results have increased. As with agriculture, our current population could not be sustained without this large production rate. (Interestingly, while technology brought us to this consequence, it can also take us back, with advances in wind-, solar- and waterpower.)

A story to keep in mind is that of the inhabitants of Easter Island. When explorers reached the island in the 18th century, they found a warlike people living in small huts and caves and barely surviving, even with each other as a food source. The bare island showed evidence of an advanced culture that had erected huge statues all around the island. When researchers studied the island, they found pollen, proof that trees had once grown abundantly. The trees had been used for canoes for fishing, shade, houses, and, as rollers, for moving the huge statues across most of the island. This limited resource was eventually extinguished, whether by actions of culture or survival, and now the people lived in squalor. (Ponting)

During much of early human development, humans were a part of the earth’s whims, and survival was as much a struggle as for any other creature. Changing the environment became a part of human nature. At this point, though, we aren’t in danger of extinction. We’re not working under the power of the world; we’re trying to work on top of and against it. If we don’t need to fight for the survival of the species, we can afford, as a species, self-reflection and reevaluation, and a shift of energy systems from those depending on brute force to those that work with the earth.

And why should we care? Because, whatever we do, we’re a part of a system. We may be strong enough to dominate the system, but not to avoid affecting it. As is showed dramatically by the story of Easter Island, potentially by the story of Australia’s fires, and obviously by a look at any urban area or at the ozone layer, what we do now affects us later. At some point, there will be no more oil and no more gas, and we will look for something else. But there will also be a lot of toxins floating around as reminders of our past. Maybe there will be a tech-fix to save us from our own problems. Maybe the time for it is now.


Fire and Ice
By Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

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last updated le 5 fevrier 2003